A few months back, Lorena Jofre was planning to buy a condominium in Miami-Dade County to finally move into her own place with her 7-year-old daughter.
Jofre, who has lived much of her life in uncertainty, also planned to exchange her old car for a new one, thanks to a better paying job. She even hoped to return to college to become a teacher or a social worker.
But her plans have since drastically changed.
Like many immigrants in South Florida and other parts of the country, Jofre is now taking steps to become untraceable after President Donald Trump ordered stepped up enforcement of immigration laws and arrests of undocumented immigrants.
“What if in a few months I can’t work? What if one day they knock on my door?” said Jofre, who lives in southwestern Miami-Dade. “You get paralyzed, you don’t want to do anything drastic with your life. It is a scary thought.”
Jofre, a Chilean immigrant, is technically not undocumented. At least until January of 2019. She is protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals ( DACA), which shields from deportation individuals who came to the United States as children and remained in the country illegally.
In September, Trump ended the program and gave Congress until March 5 to approve a legislative solution that would give legal status to the nearly 700,000 people protected by DACA. But the deadline passed without any legislation or new remedies to the dilemma.
The lack of an immigration solution by Congress has generated uncertainty among those with DACA, also known as “Dreamers,” as well as those with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and those without legal status. As a result, many undocumented immigrants or those who could lose their legal protection, have started to move to other neighborhoods or cities, close bank accounts and register their vehicles, houses and even businesses in the names of others.
Jofre, who is a single mother, is considering leaving Florida, where she has lived for almost 25 years. She plans to move to a sanctuary state, where local authorities are not obligated to cooperate with federal immigration agencies to arrest undocumented immigrants.
Before DACA, Jofre worked as a waitress, getting paid under the table. DACA allowed her to obtain better jobs and plot a better future.
Jofre and other immigrants interviewed by the Miami Herald said they will have few options if they lose their protected status.
“I would go back to living in the shadows, which is how I have lived most of my life in this country,” she said, adding that she has not even considered returning to Chile, a country she barely remembers.
“I would only go if they throw me out, and I would go kicking and screaming and fighting to stay,” Jofre said.
Listening to her mother, Anabell teared up. The first-grader likes her school and said she does not want to live in Chile because she is afraid.
“What are you afraid of?” a reporter asked her.
“Earthquakes,” Anabell answered without hesitation.
Several immigrants, activists and lawyers said the majority of people without papers or who will lose legal protection are not considering leaving the United States as an option. At least not voluntarily.
“For most of these people, this is home. How do you tell someone that they have to leave their home? They have been living here for 20, 30 years. They bought homes, raised families,” Santra Denis of Catalyst Miami said at a recently organized community forum.
“Do you know anyone who is getting ready to leave? Because I don’t,” said Denis, whose organization works with immigrant families.
Now many living in limbo cling to the hope of comprehensive immigration reform, which would not only protect DACA beneficiaries, but possibly include other immigrant groups, such as those with TPS and those without papers. Meanwhile, around the country, desperate families are taking steps to hide and protect their children in case they are deported.
▪ A month ago in Washington, D.C., Cristina bought an inexpensive sofa, lamp, desk and kitchen utensils that she found through the sales listing on Facebook to furnish her new apartment. The Guatemalan, who has lived in the Maryland area for nearly 22 years, recently moved out of her neighborhood where she lived for almost a decade and abandoned everything.
“Things are getting ugly, so we decided to move and left just like that, without saying a word to neighbors,” said Cristina, who did not want to give her last name, as her husband, a construction worker, loaded the sofa on his truck.
Cristina’s daughter was born in the United States, recently turned 21 and is filing a petition to legalize the status of her parents. But Cristina is afraid that immigration authorities will knock on her door before her daughter can help.
“What if the migra grabs me before I have my papers?” asked Cristina, who works as a concierge in a luxury hotel. “I have to take care of myself.”
▪ In an apartment near Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, an undocumented immigrant from Central America recently posted a sign on a wall of her house, next to the front door: “Before opening the door: Look out the window, do not open to strangers, don’t answer ANYTHING.”
It’s not just a warning for her young daughter, who was born in the United States, but also a warning to everyone in the family in case immigration agents knock.
“ICE does not need a search warrant to come in, so we’ve been advised not to open the door,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified for fear of being arrested.
A few days earlier, she had changed her car at the dealership. She chose another color, a different model and she registered it in the name of her eldest daughter. She is waiting for her lease to expire to move elsewhere. But she does not want to move too far so she doesn’t have to find a new school for her daughter.
“Just think, my daughter, who is a U.S. citizen, has to deal with the consequences of this uncertainty,” she said.
▪ In recent weeks, Lis-Marie Alvarado, an activist with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said she has received 10 power-of-attorney letters, naming her as the legal guardian of several children. They were given to her by undocumented mothers who work in the fields, babysitting or cleaning houses, and who fear social services authorities will take their American children if they are detained by ICE.
“It is an enormous responsibility and should only be done with someone you trust,” said Alvarado, who coordinates the “We Belong Together” campaign in Miami-Dade. “These people are not giving me custody of their children or anything like that. But they do feel the need to give me this document, so if they are detained or deported, they will know who has their children while they fix their situation.”
In November, immigration authorities announced the end of the humanitarian protection granted to immigrants from countries that are in armed conflicts or have faced devastating natural disasters, such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Almost 60,000 Haitians who live and work in Miami and around the United States will be left without legal protection in 2019 and could be deported. The same will happen with hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Nicaragua, El Salvador and Sudan.
Bico, who asked that his full name not be published, came to the United States from Haiti in 2001. He remained undocumented for a time, before applying for TPS. He said he is not willing to leave his children behind when his status expires in July 2019.
“My children are supposed to be with me, finishing their education. I don’t know of any father who wants to leave his children behind … leave them here alone, not knowing what kind of life they will have,” he said. “They could become criminals and this is what I am trying to prevent. Maybe they will join gangs, have problems, and I don’t want that.”
Bico, who works cleaning a local airport in the evenings and early mornings, is overwhelmed thinking about the near future. If he loses protection and authorities knock on his door, does he take his children with him to Haiti, where it would be difficult for him to get work and obtain a good education for them? Or does he stay in the U.S. illegally?
“Since they announced the decision, I have been thinking about what I am going to do,” said Bico, who was a journalist in Haiti before emigrating to the United States. “To be honest, the law is the law, if they want to apply it, there’s nothing I can do. But I would like Congress to legalize those of us who have lived in this country for a long time.”